QUESTION: How do you write a hook strong enough to make an agent fall in love with your characters and/or plot in the first five pages?



Literary agents receive an overwhelming amount of manuscript submissions on a weekly basis and lack the time to review every submission in detail. There are two key documents that agents use to assess whether your fiction book warrants further review: your query letter and your first few pages.

Without a professional and compelling query letter, your submission will likely go into the “slush pile” and you’ll receive the dreaded form rejection letter. Your manuscript will remain unread. To learn more about writing a compelling query letter start here.

If you’ve perfected your letter and are confident it will entice agents to read your entire submission, you’ll want to ensure your story’s beginning will immediately grab and hold their attention. So, how do you draw them in? By following these 5 tips:

1.  Write an Attention-Grabbing Opening Line

Your first line is your first impression with readers. Whether humorous and witty, dark and moody, or full of mystery, your story’s overall tone should be reflected in your opening line. Some authors open with a statement about the book’s theme or message, others open with interesting dialogue, action, or description of the setting.

The goal with your opening line or first few lines is to capture the reader by shocking, intriguing, or puzzling them. Here are some well-known examples:

The book Handmaid's Tale has a memorable opening line.“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in
want of a wife”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The book 1984 has a famous opening line.“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984 by George Orwell

“You better not ever tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Do you see how much you can already assume about the tone, setting, or themes of these stories? To see a longer listing of sample opening lines from a variety of genres, visit the Goodreads Opening Line Quotes page.

2.  Start in the Right Place

Your opening scene is often the most important part of your story. It’s your chance to showcase your voice as a writer, reveal what the story will be about, introduce main characters, and hook the reader.

Think of your opening scene as the status quo world right before things are going to change forever for your main character. Let us know whose story it is, why it matters, and what’s potentially at stake. Start with something that is happening now, in the present. Use a little action or drama to create tension, engage the reader, and set the dominoes in motion.

Many agents and readers will only give you a page or two to engage them, so make your opening scene as compelling as possible. Some writers complete their first draft before realizing there is a stronger scene farther along in the story that makes more sense for the opening.

3.  Build Up to the Inciting Incident

Once you’ve grounded and captured the reader with your opening lines and scene, your job is to quickly build up to the inciting incident. The inciting incident is an essential plot point in any story, and is the catalyst that changes everything for your main character. It is the event that upsets the status quo and forces he or she to make a life-altering decision. The inciting incident can happen on the same day as your opening scene, or even be a part of your opening scene.

Freytag's Pyramid is a popular outline for book plot structure.

Where you drop in your inciting incident really depends on your genre and plot. In a faster-paced murder mystery, the time between your opening scene and inciting incident may be much shorter than in a slower-paced historical romance. Many established authors and industry experts recommend including your inciting incident by page 10 of your story, if not sooner. It’s all about pacing and what’s right for your story. If you wait too long to set the plot in motion, readers will become frustrated and lose interest.

4.  Make the Reader Care

Stories are largely driven by the main characters as well as their motivations. Characters that are authentic, believable, and flawed are more engaging, so choose the personality traits and vulnerabilities that are most interesting and weave them into your opening. It’s equally important to be clear about your main character’s desires or needs, what opposition he or she might face, and what’s at stake. Your inciting incident won’t matter to the reader if you haven’t at least established a relatable main character that has something to gain or lose. However, if readers are emotionally invested they will be compelled to read on and find out what happens next.

You can fully immerse readers in your story by using all five senses to ground them in time and place. If your readers feel like they are there, experiencing what your characters are experiencing, they are more likely to stick around. A great setting can become the inciting incident or even the opposing force. If you are writing fantasy or science fiction that takes place in an imaginary world, be sure to weave in details about that world at the start.

5.  Trigger Curiosity and Questions

You don’t want to give away everything in your first few pages, but do hint at any trouble that lies ahead. The reason that writers use cliffhangers at the end of scenes and chapters is to make readers ask, “What happens next?”, and excitedly turn the page.

Trust your readers to be curious while also being comfortable with finding out more later. You are showing them the tip of the iceberg. If you try to tell them too much up front it will slow your pacing, making your opening dull and uninteresting. If your readers aren’t asking themselves, “Who, what, when, where, why, or how?” after your first page, you’ve likely lost them.

The opening pages of your book should make your reader ask important questions and want to keep reading

Things to Avoid at the Start of Your Book

Now that we’ve covered the “Dos” for the opening of your story, it’s important to point out some common mistakes that leave agents and readers bored, frustrated, or uninterested:

•  Too much character or world-building backstory and information dumping
•  Cliché dream sequences or flashbacks
•  Mundane details like your character waking up, the morning routine, the weather
•  Too much telling and not enough showing
•  Dialogue or intense action without any context
If you’ve written a prologue, consider excluding it from your submission – your story needs to stand on its own

A story’s beginning is often the most difficult for writers because so much has to be accomplished in so little time. Some agent submission guidelines will request just the first few pages; others may request the first few chapters. No matter the request, follow the guidelines and present a query letter and story beginning that will make them want to see more. Think of the beginning of your book as extending an invitation to your reader. Make it one they can’t resist!